The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – 4/ 5 stars
The Underground Railroad is a powerful and haunting tale of slavery and trying to escape it. Whitehead’s writing is vivid and transports one into another time period and another person. This is a book that will stay with me for years; not only the message, but also the feelings the book evoked as I lived Cora’s journey.
The story primarily focuses on Cora, a slave on a Georgia Plantation where she was born and raised. Cora is an outcast on the plantation and lives a somewhat lonely life. During a day of celebration, a new slave, Caesar, approaches Cora and asks if she will run away with him. He considers her a good luck charm since her mother successfully ran away. While Cora initially refuses, she eventually changes her mind and the two set out to find freedom through the underground railroad, which is an actual railroad underground. Their journey to freedom runs into many complications as they are pursued by a slave catcher. Yet, this is about more than a slave’s journey to freedom; it is a story about the entire system, including the various actors.
In The Underground Railroad, we get glimpses into other characters’ lives. There are several brief chapters throughout the book which tell the backstory of a character or reveal something else about a character. These chapters are incredibly well-written and I was incredibly impressed with how well each character was written. To my dismay, I found myself relating to and understanding white characters who were apart of slavery in some aspect. It blows my mind that Whitehead was able to accurately capture this characters and give them so much depth. But now that I am familiar with his writing, it does not surprise me. He is an amazing writer.
The Underground Railroad covers more than the story of Cora; it also shows the reader all sorts of other forms of oppression of black people: slave, freeborn, or freed. Through use of symbolism and reference to actual historical events, Whitehead makes it clear what obstacles black people had to overcome, not just during slavery, but in the years to follow emancipation. These pieces are what made this book so powerful and haunting for me. It gave me the sense of how desperate and horrendous the plight of the black person was. It deeply conveyed why many black people to not trust government institutions, politicians, or some white people in general. The atrocities white people have committed against black people, both during and long after slavery have left deep, deep wounds which often will not heal because in a certain way, not much has changed.
But Whitehead did more than capture the oppression of black people; he also captured the fear of the average white person. Violence begets violence and thus, white people brought much of the violence upon themselves, the average soul was ignorant to that. They failed to understand that stealing a people from a land would cause them to violently try to change the situation. Many of the white people were not actively apart of slavery and many of them had not witnessed the slave trade, which had been banned by the time this story takes place. Instead, for every black uprising, white fear grew, and they responded with more violence, which only led to more violent response. The stories white people told themselves about black people being violent criminals came true because of the actions of white people themselves or at least the system at large. Whitehead captures this and has the reader glimpse for a moment what it would feel like to be a white person during this time period. But this glimpse is short because in the end, while the fear may have been real, it was irrational and the people that deserve sympathy and understanding are ones horrible damaged and broken by this irrational fear.
There are some incredibly disturbing scenes in this book, often worse than what I had understood of the horrors of slavery. Many of these depictions will stay with me for a long time. There is much truth in them, which is why it is not possible to easily shake them. But surprisingly, this book was less challenging than I expected. For example, while there were references to rape, the details were not given. Even the most gruesome scenes were told with only as much detail as necessary. Also, the narrator was a bit detached from it all, making it easier to digest. But this detachment is also what costs this book a half star because due to that attachment, this book will not stay with me in the same way it could have otherwise.
In terms of plot, I did not find the inclusion of an actual underground railroad to add anything to the story, though I did not feel like it took away from the story either. The plot was good, but not as strong as I expected. While the writing is fantastic, it still does not seem to provide enough to give the plot a full life. I will certainly remember many scenes from this book and some will stay with me in vivid detail, the main plot will likely be lost on me in due time. That is disappointing for me and cost the point another half point. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what is missing, except to say that it likely goes back to the detachment. Yes, I wanted the best outcome for Cora and the other characters, but I was not moved to cry when they ran into serious obstacles nor did I feel compelled to keep reading their stories. I greatly enjoyed the book, the overall plot just was not that interesting. I am not sure I will read more of Colson Whitehead’s works. His writing is fantastic and his symbolism and short “stories” within the book are superb, but if his other books suffer from the same uninteresting plot, I am not sure I want to read them. Only time will tell. However, I do recommend people read this book as it truly does add another layer of understanding to what it was like to live as a black person in America during slavery.
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